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Reflections

Your Country Needs You! An Art Review of the Literal Security Theatre Show on Nairobi’s Streets

I have been thinking about the old man who spoke to me on my way to work. Why me? Why did he follow and ‘perform’ for me? Who asked him to? For what purpose? When I told my friend about it, he didn’t hesitate: “That’s a spy. That’s his job. He was paid a hundred or two hundred shillings to follow you to your destination.”

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Your Country Needs You! An Art Review of the Literal Security Theatre Show on Nairobi’s Streets
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It is said that knowledge is a curse, but my knowledge of the dramatic arts was the last thing I ever expected to manifest this truth, out of all my skills. For those of us Kenyans who know how to read the mise-en-scene that is downtown Nairobi, the last few weeks preceding and during French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit have been interesting to say the least. But as a film director and scriptwriter, and I am sad to say I have witnessed a lot of terrible acting – a true mutilation of the theatrical arts upon the streets of the city. Still, I am not sure the practitioners of this travesty were aware of the fact that they were, to the trained eye, in terrible need of dramatic correction. The theatre show they produced was untitled, but I want to call it ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ and it has been showing on the street, right beside you, if you had the eyes to see.

Let me explain, but let’s make it interesting; What do the following three Kenyans have in common? A tall ‘msee wa kupima weight’ sitting silently and openly in the daytime along the Kenyatta Avenue pavement, his head lowered, all his attention on his phone as people pass him by. A sensibly dressed woman sitting on a tree stump on a Saturday, around lunch hour, chewing through a large roasted maize cob slowly and making no attempt to seek the shade of a nearby tree with a bench underneath. A sweet vendor out late, about eight thirty in the night, leaning silently against a lamppost where the shade hides the upper part of his body and only the sweets in the small bucket hang between his legs in the light. Well, can you guess?

For one, they are all doing things counter-intuitive to the nature of the jobs they are supposed to be doing. The msee wa kupima weight is not calling out to customers or nervously looking out for city council. Why? The woman on the tree stump is pouring sweat, and wiping it with a handkerchief, but not moving into the shade? Not even taking off her backpack? Why? And the sweet vendor, what’s up with that? That’s downright suspicious. At that time no one buys sweets from bus windows. At that time, even if a sweet vendor was leaning there, his little bucket would not be arranged for daytime. If I was directing that scene in a film and I saw that extra, I would yell ‘Cut!’ and send him back to the costume department for a makeover.

I’ll tell you what else they all have in common; they are all plainclothes police. The city has been on mini-lockdown these last few weeks. The oblivious and the privileged have probably not even noticed. But every young man from Eastlands, every street urchin, every hawker, every tout and bodaboda rider, every sex worker will tell you it has been perilous. It has been necessary to be able to read the stranger on the street and decide on the quality of their acting. If you failed to see all the bad acting happening around you, you might have found yourself in some terrible trouble. Ask the two matatu touts I saw at OTC, handcuffed by a plainclothes police officer who was dressed like an underground rapper, bling and torn jeans and all. At what point did they realize that he was not a rapper? When it was too late, evidently. Ask the young man I saw on Wednesday morning sitting near the Tom Mboya statue in downtown Nairobi, two bad actors standing over him, glowering down at his face as one searched his pockets. As I was walking away, I think I heard a slap. At what point, as they walked towards him, did he realise they were not going to a nearby office but that their office was the street, and he was their unfortunate business?

If the last few weeks have taught me anything, it is that everyone needs some knowledge of acting. At least, everyone needs to be able to differentiate the good from the bad. You see, even the real wajango –the ones who grab you and press a pistol in your back demanding your money and phone– even they usually need to ‘act’ a little in order to get close enough before they show their true colours. I have a feeling that that slight bit of theatre education might not only make us safer on our streets, but also that it will change the entertainment industry for the better. I don’t even blame the poor security officers, most of them must have been trying out theatrical roles for the first time ever. However, I request the government to invest a little more in the theatrical arts, if just because it seems to be such a critical skill for national security. God forbid those who want to harm Kenyans learn good acting first, right?

Now as a professional, and in general, I don’t trust bad acting. Even a good friend will sometimes fail the good acting test and often you discover that they were trying to lie or withhold some information in these cases, such as why they need to borrow money. But now comes the twist in the tale… I was careful all through the week to keep a safe distance from any of the bad actors, and lord have mercy, they poured the whole force into this theatre production without auditioning them. There were some terrible examples indeed. I saw a sweet vendor even ignore a mother and child. Sweet vendors love selling to children. I think the biggest factor of the bad acting that stood out was the simple ignorance of the real life of the character whose costume they had chosen to wear.

I didn’t think it through very well though. I should have remembered the other constant I have observed in most bad actors I have directed – they are often unaware that their acting is bad and are utterly convinced that they are the next Lupita. I should have seen it from their point of view. They must have sat and wondered, but how does he not fall for our marvellous acting? So instead of avoiding suspicion, I think I must have aroused it instead. But thankfully, they finally found a decent actor to send my way. On Tuesday morning, as I walked up the hill up State House Road to go to Pawa254, a short bespectacled old man, bald with white hair, was walking slowly up ahead. As I came up the road, he watched me wipe the sweat off my face and smoothly took the opportunity to start a conversation.

Kuna joto leo, eh? Kwanza kama uko na njaa ndio unaisikia vizuri.” (It’s hot today, eh? Especially if you are hungry, that’s when you really feel the heat).

I liked how smooth his improvised entry was and I am not a bad actor myself, so I smiled and decided to walk with him and chat a little about life.

Nikifika ninapoenda kwanza nitakunywa maji baridi ndio nitafute kachai,” I replied. (When I get to where I’m going, I’ll have to take some cold water and then look for tea).

Eh, yaani siku hizi kuna njaa. Ukiona jua imewaka hivi, jua kuna njaa.’ (Eh, these days there’s hunger. When you see the sun blazing like this, there’s hunger).

Kweli mzee, watu wamesota sana. Sasa mimi naingia hivi.’ (That’s true, old man. Now, I’m going to turn here).

At this point I was about to turn right into State House Crescent and he was still walking ahead of me. He made his first mistake then, he walked on as if he was still going up State House Road before turning again to follow me. I looked in his face and saw him take the mistake with the grace of a seasoned performer… I smiled. How did the police find such a great actor? I could use such talent for my next film. But now I was curious.

Kumbe ulikuwa unakuja huku kama mimi?’ (Oh, so you were coming to this place, like me?)

Eeeh, ninataka kununua sigara kwa hiyo duka ya mluhya.’ (Eeeh, I want to buy a cigarette at this kiosk run by the Luhya guy).

Again he was impressive, he had done some homework and knew that there is a small tuck shop by the gate of Pawa254 run by a relaxed old man called Stevo. I smiled. He didn’t seem rehearsed at all – a natural actor, but not on your screen. We walked together, discussing the economy, and the heat. When we got to the gate, I bought him a chapati at the kibanda opposite the shop. I told him I was now going to work and wished him well. And I walked away wondering if I had been going about the situation completely the wrong way. It seems, the better plan is to pretend you can’t see bad acting. Perhaps I simply should not be thinking like a scriptwriter or film director when I am on the street. Perhaps it is I who should be perfecting my acting on the street, playing the complicated role of ‘man-who-does-not-see-bad-acting’ as I walk among the throng. So for the last few days as Macron’s visit has wound up, I have attempted to relax a little more around the bad acting all around town. I must admit though, it has not been easy.

Truthfully, sometimes they did not bother to act at all. Some days – specifically from Thursday through to Saturday – it was like a badly directed dystopian horror film. I guess they were worried that there might be some trouble before and during the busiest dates of the UNEA summit. It was well into the very dystopian territory of ‘physical-presence-as-threat’ and violence hung heavy above every street like rain clouds, waiting for an excuse to pour down. I remember walking up Wabera Street from Mama Ngina Street and a burly gentleman following behind me for a few minutes, his nose barely inches from the back of my neck. Then he suddenly sped on, perhaps to follow other prey. As he passed me, I remember noticing a small can clutched tightly in his hand, his finger on the top part of it. My guess, it was a can of mace. And going by the expression on the man’s face, (alikuwa amebonda like he had safari ants in his underwear) I sense he was disappointed that I hadn’t given him any excuse to use it.

There is a shop window at Kipande house facing the street at which we sometimes stop to dance as we come from Pawa254. Yes we do; what can I say, we are after all artists – and art is a way of life, not a nine-to-five occupation. I was walking ahead of everyone else as we came up to it that evening and then I saw them — a large group of bad actors standing around the spot, at least twelve, pretending to be regular people heading home. Except, they were all drifting too close to your side, bumping you on the shoulder, or in some cases, turning right round to walk by your side and listen to your conversation. It was not a time to be oblivious. I know bad acting, but I also know when people are not acting anymore. There was no more pretence of theatre. We hurried on, past the dancing spot, and on our way. We didn’t dance that day.

We got to our different bus stages without incident, but not before one tall gentleman had suddenly turned to block my friend’s path and take a deep long sniff of his face right in the middle of Moi Avenue, trying to smell him for traces of ganja. Now surely, that is well within the realm of sexual harassment. If I were directing that film, I would have fired that actor immediately for breach of contract. That was not bad acting anymore, just very bad behaviour. It should not be condoned, in any sort of theatre produced for public consumption.

I have been thinking about the whole exercise in a new light, wondering if all over the city, young people like me were also feeling the overbearing weight of the security performance. Feeling restricted to just given spaces, unwelcome in some. Feeling as though they were not really the audience of it, because why would the cast of a play meant for me seem so unfriendly to me? As if I was not the intended audience of the show, but some charlatan roaming about their stage. I thought this was my city too. You can see why I gave their theatre production the title that I did. I have been wondering if better acting on their part would have made a difference to how their show made me feel. It is a long shot, but I have decided to volunteer some free theatrical advice.

To all you first time actors and actresses who debuted in the country’s biggest theatre production this year, congratulations and kudos. Welcome to the entertainment industry and good luck. I have two quick pieces of advice for you after the show. Your performances were affected by two major first-time actor mistakes. The first and most common mistake many of you made was being over-serious. There is no reason why a sweet vendor I have never met would be glaring at me angrily instead of trying to sell me sweets. Some of you, especially the men, already have faces that are ‘angry by default’. For such people, deliberately trying to look serious moves your performance quickly from the genre of drama to the genre of horror. Watch out for that next time.

The next and most common mistake you made, though I am much more lenient about this one, was a very common acting mistake – unintended smiling. I mostly observed this among the actresses – why, there was one who smiled right at me even as she attempted to steal a photo of my face on her phone, perhaps amused by her own undercover actions. Good acting needs one to not let their emotions give them away. I am glad though, I much preferred the smiling ladies to the wasee-wa-kubonda. Which young man doesn’t like a pretty actress giving them some attention? Your next production is bound to be much better if you remember these two tips.

I have also been thinking about the old man who spoke to me on my way to work. Why me? Why did he follow and ‘perform’ for me? Who asked him to? For what purpose? I wonder if he does it for a living, this subtle and not-much-known form of theatre acting. When I told my friend Dulizmo about it, he didn’t hesitate;

‘Huyo ni mbleina. Hiyo ndiyo wera yake. Huyo alijengwa ng’at ama rwabe akutrace mpaka penye unaingia.’ (That’s a spy. That’s his job. He was paid a hundred or two hundred shillings to follow you to your destination.)

I am not surprised to hear that opinion of the old man but I am much more interested in the nature of his work. If he does it regularly, then he is a professional actor operating in the theatre of real life. Old man, if they show you this article, come and look for me at the place you followed me to. We didn’t get the chance to talk about your acting career and I really think your best days are not yet behind you. You have what it takes to be a great film or theatre actor. And you owe me a chapatti.

I reiterate; I don’t blame the huge cast of ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ entirely for their bad acting. Again, experience with Kenyan TV and theatrical productions has taught me that many times, the reason the acting is bad is because someone tampered with the production and/or rehearsal budget. You can’t blame an actor for something like bad costuming, or an inappropriate prop. Someone with a good eye for theatre is supposed to help them with such things. Perhaps I have discovered a unique opportunity for actors and theatre practitioners like myself. It seems that the security profession is in need of good theatre production skills much more than they might admit. And lord knows, paying work for artists can be hard to come by. I am glad to see that they put up such a concerted effort to perform their show and some of them, such as the mzee who spoke to me, certainly deserve at least a Kalasha award.

And to all other young film and theatre actors all over the country; it turns out, your country needs you!

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Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. He was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story prize in 2013.

Reflections

Not yet Uhuru: Growing up Gay in Kenya, before the Digital Age

The High Court’s decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear.

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Not yet Uhuru: Growing up Gay in Kenya, before the Digital Age
Photo: Jason Leung on Unsplash
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I will never forget that weekend, over 32 years ago. It was a sunny day; I was walking on Koinange Street, and was about to get onto Kenyatta Avenue, when a vivid and amazing realization hit me, “I am gay!” I was 22 years old at the time, and had been struggling for many years prior – I had become familiar with the darkness of depression and shame at the thought of being homosexual. I had prayed desperately to God to take away the feelings I had.

I knew from a very young age I was different but never actually understood what that difference was. By Class Three or Four, my brothers – I have five in total – had given me nicknames “Ciku” or “Suku” that always had me fighting with them, since they seemed to disparagingly suggest I was engaging in roles that were supposed to be for girls. I was too young to understand any of this at the time. But as I grew up and went into high school I completely got lost when my male peers started having discussion about girls. I could not understand their excitement and strategies on how they would get their first kisses or hugs. My lack of comprehension of what my peers were going through began a deep fear in me that there was something terribly wrong with me. I pretended with my friends that I understood their conversations but I failed to catch this wave of pubescent excitement.

It was not until I got into college, and luckily took a class in human sexuality, that I finally understood that I was part of the sexuality spectrum that included same-gender attraction. This realization was liberating, albeit for a very short period, because once I actually understood what this meant for me, my understanding of my family, my culture, religion, friends and everything I held dear to my life, I became petrified. I was barely 21 and was about to start a very challenging journey of shame and refusal at what was very clearly the reality of who I was. I loved my family deeply but with the realization that I was gay, I was afraid that I would be a disappointment to my loving and supportive parents. This of course led to feeling ashamed and undeserving. The prayers to God and anybody who could hear me seemed to land on deaf ears until that fateful sunny day on K-Street. It’s kind of funny how this moment happened on a street that was known to be Nairobi’s red light district. Irony, you might say.

For reasons I still do not understand till this day, I felt a divine intervention and connection in that moment, possibly with ancestors looking out for me, that finally made me stop questioning myself and finally accept how I was born and who I was. For the next many years, I realized that my realization on that sunny day was just the beginning of a very long journey of self-discovery, a different kind of struggle that comes with claiming my space in life.

With a new acceptance of myself, I began looking for people who might be going through similar experiences. This was Nairobi before the digital age and so there was no Internet, no social media, Facebook, Twitter, or anything like that. Amazingly, there were individuals going through the same thing, and often one got introduced via networks that people had made over time. The fear slowly began to ease, and I began to be excited since I now did not see myself as a problem but as someone who belonged.

Over time some of us spent long hours at various places, including Cameo Cinema on Kenyatta Avenue, talking and getting to know one another. There was a lot of cruising around on Kenyatta Avenue, where lifelong friendships and even relationships were born. I was to later learn that these encounters were happening in other parts of the city and particular bars, clubs had begun to be spaces that individuals could meet and socialize. This is why it is important to have spaces to experience oneself with people like yourself. And all this existed in pre-digital Nairobi. Today’s society might not want to believe it, but we – queer people – have always been here. These pioneering spaces, I believe strongly, were the precursors for organized LGBQTI groups that were to start in the late 1990s and really blossom in the mid-2000s.

I left Kenya soon after for further studies, and moved to New York City. There, an HIV epidemic was in high gear, affecting primarily gay and bisexual men. While in New York, during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and working within the HIV sector, I saw dozens of my gay friends die, not only from the lack of medication then, but from also the intense stigma and discrimination they received from the society at large. With my background in health, I got immersed in the responses against HIV in the city. This included facilitating HIV-positive support groups for gay and bisexual men of African descent ( African-American, Caribbean and African immigrants), and visiting hospitals to visit abandoned gay men whose families only showed up once they had passed on. I could not, and still do not understand how a family can abandon their child simply because of their sexual orientation.

It was at this time, and I believe as a result of a lot of pent up anger at the injustices I was experiencing all around me, that I came out to my family. My thinking was if they decided to abandon me (as I had seen many of my friends experience with their families) then I wanted to be in the space where I could speak directly to that, in case it ever happened. But I was surprised – and incredibly relieved – that my brothers were supportive of me even though they did not quite understand what I was experiencing at the time.

I began my journey back to Kenya in 2006 and finally settled back home in 2008. I had come back to support the beginnings of the governmental response to the HIV epidemic affecting marginalized communities including the ‘Most at Risk’ Populations (later to be renamed ‘Key Populations’ – sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who use drugs). My experience in the US provided me with some perspective to the growing voice of marginalized communities to the HIV pandemic – I felt I had something to contribute. I was also blessed to join in the growing voices of LGBTQI activists beginning to articulate and claim their rightful spaces as full citizens of this country. Eleven years later much has been achieved by LGBTQI and other marginalized communities in both the health and legal sectors.
This is why I woke up with great expectations on that Friday, May 24th 2019. I was optimistic because within this past decade, the LGBTQI community has had some incremental but significant legal wins, many of them made possible with the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution and its progressive Bill of Rights. In 2012, for example, a transgender woman was stripped naked by the police, in the full glare of the media. The court ruled her rights had been violated and ordered the government pay for damages caused. In a 2013 case that challenged the NGO Board, which had refused to register LGBTQI organizations, the High Court held that Article 27 of the Constitution protected ‘every person’ regardless of their sexual orientation. The Court further held that permitting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation would be against constitutional provisions of equality and non-discrimination.

And in another 2013 case, Baby A was born with both male and female genitalia. Hospital records indicated the baby’s sex by a question mark (?) and as a result, the child could not be issued a birth certificate or, concomitantly, an identity card. The court agreed with the petitioners that this offends the child’s rights to legal recognition, erodes its dignity and violates the right of the child not to be subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment as guaranteed in both the Constitution and the Children’s Act. It was a landmark case that provided for the first time relief for intersex persons in Kenya and ultimately led to the creation of the Intersex Task Force by the Attorney General’s office.

It was with this background of the successes the LGBTQI movements have had in their engagement with the judiciary, which gave me hope that early Friday morning. But halfway through the reading of the judgment, it became clear to all around that things were not going well. When the judges stated that majority views – ‘public opinion’ – must at times prevail in rulings such as this, we knew the case was lost. The judgment made it clear that in Kenya, the existing Victorian-era colonial penal codes are here to stay.

This decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. The High Court’s conservative negative ruling basically invalidating the existence of LGBT people in Kenya was not only a body blow to many LGBTQ individuals in Kenya, but truly had me going back to 32 years ago, where shame and self-hate ruled my life. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear. The ruling seemed to not address the pertinent issues brought up by the petition but used as a platform to preach to queer Kenyans about Kenya’s cultural and religious values, things that were simply not being challenged in the court.

The reaction of the LGBQTI community has been one of devastation. We are part of this country. We work and contribute to the nation’s development. We will continue to challenge laws and a society that is intent on excluding us from our rightful place as citizens of this country. We have however shown great dignity and resolve and intend to continue our long journey for recognition, the same as has happened in other struggles in the past, including for our own country’s independence. Our uhuru will come.

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Reflections

Genesis: A Revolutionary Dance

I greet you in the name of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Micere Mugo, Thomas Mapfumo, and Bob Marley. I greet you in the name of dance, song, story, and poetry.

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Genesis: A Revolutionary Dance
Photo: Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash
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A friend comes up to me and tries to convince me how art is unnecessary:

A luxury for First World countries, but apparently for us who are still developing,

It is only hindering

Unlike the Sciences, business studies, and engineering which are actually Doing Something

“Building”, according to him,

“The arts are simply a frivolous pastime”

And I should have known by his first line, it was already past time to shut down his lip

Damn. The whiteness runs deep

I do not understand whether it is extremely sad or deeply infuriating:

This heavily colonized way of thinking

Erasing chunks of history

Dumbing down my destiny to unnecessary

You see, I am here to tell story

And in this story, this type of thinking is my enemy, choosing to unsee my poetry

Telling me as a black African woman I should put my mind to better use

As if I do not use the tears and injustices against my people as a muse

To speak to what we could be above and beyond what we are

As if dance, poetry, song, and story are not the only balm working towards healing continental scars

As if the sky is anything but dark at night without the stars

If you come at me with art is unnecessary, more so in a developing country

Ayii yawah! May the ancestors judge you accordingly!

Because you have not done the work to know your history

And one simply has no right to dismiss art as inconsequential to the freedom fight

So today I bring you the forgotten histories

Like the griots who have come before me

From the beginning: Genesis

If God created the world with words, then creation lies on the tips of our tongues

Revolution sits in wait for a song to be sung

A poem to reiterate how freedom has now come

Genesis.

In the early 1960s, 300 years after the Dutch subjugated South Africa

A man known as apartheid’s father, Hendrick Verwoerd, became prime minister

The earth wailed for this broken nation

In this period of black subjugation, oppression, degradation, and shattered dreams of emancipation

One man, Vuyisile Mini, composed one song to a silent symphony

The ground responded collectively…

Bringing in the people’s harmony,

“Ndondemnyama ve Verwoerd”

And the people collected the song and started singing, “Ndondemnyama ve Verwoerd-

Watch out Verwoerd, the black man is coming! Your days are over.”

Reiterated decades later by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela

The song became the people’s prayer:

Chanted on lips, music the tool of power whispered through chattering teeth

Vuyisile Mini was named a rebel organizer and was sentenced to death by the apartheid powers

They say he died, head held high… a martyr

Singing, “Ndonemnyama ve Verwoerd” with fire

And this is what music does for the revolution

It is power on the lips of children

Ask the sons and daughters of South Africa as they sing,

“Freedom is coming! Tomorrow!”

Song is power, “Amandla!”

Genesis.

In the early 1940s, two decades after the Harlem renaissance of the 20s

Led by black poets, jazz musicians, and writers in American society,

Leopold Senghor sat in his room writing poetry

After two years in Nazi concentration camps, captured while fighting French wars

He now armed himself with African words

Having received the highest distinction as an African in French education

This man who would become the first Senegalese president did not simply sit in his achievement

Instead he wrote poetry

Critiquing the Frenchman’s philosophy

Questioning the idea that Africans have no civilized culture or history

Mourning assimilation’s intention to eradicate the collective African memory

This one man whose civilization and history was considered crude sparked into existence the continental movement known as Negritude

Black Self-love. A whole damn mood!

Genesis.

In 1910 colonial Kenya

Lived a priestess from the people of the Kamba known as Syotuna

When she was younger, she had been a warrior

But now a widow, age had begun to catch up with her

But still within her was the spirit of a fighter, her soul burned fire

The colonial regime had driven her people out of their lands

Hiking up taxes, tying their hands

Forcing them to slave their way for some white man’s pay day

Syotuna’s spirit could not simply sit and wait

So she challenged her people’s predetermined complacent fate

Choosing to fight for her people instead of leaving it to chance

Her weapon of choice, as unconventional as it sounds: Dance

The Kilumi dance was sacred to the Kamba women’s history

Syotuna realized she could use it to weaponize her stories

So she danced, sang, and chanted her memories

Reminding her people of their past warrior glories

Spitting on the colonial regime’s atrocities

Freeing her people from their mental slaveries

Soon the dance of Kilumi began to pick across the lands as children and women attempted to mimic

Syotuna’s thrusting hips, so free and unbridled

The colonizers called it demonic

And the ancestors must have laughed at this fearful tactic

The more they danced, the more the Kamba rebelled

The white man’s fear propelled their last move:

Syotuna was exiled

But not before the revolution of the Kilumi dance spread into the hearts and minds of the young Kamba revolutionaries left behind

Genesis.

If I were to sit around this fire and tell you the stories of all the artist revolutionaries throughout our collective history from the beginning,

Genesis.

We would spend eternity

So for now I merely greet you in the name of these and others from our ancestry.

I greet you in the name of another warrior dancer, Mekatilili.

I greet you in the name of another music freedom fighter, Fela Kuti.

I greet you in the name of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Micere Mugo, Thomas Mapfumo, and Bob Marley.

I greet you in the name of dance, song, story, and poetry.

I greet you in the name of revolutionary history.

I greet you in the name of Love.

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Reflections

The Kenyan Media and the Queer Stories Of Our Lives

I hope that soon when I encounter media coverage of LGBTQ issues, it will recognise and acknowledge that there isn’t one single narrative to our ‘gayism’, which actually isn’t even a proper word.

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The Kenyan Media and the Queer Stories Of Our Lives
Photo: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
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My earliest encounter of the word homosexuality in the Kenyan press was in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to the magazines Drum and True Love, which were published out of South Africa at the time. There was the Dear Dolly advice section, which offered advice on relationships and what I thought then were ‘adult’ things. The mainstream press occasionally carried out an ‘expose’ on areas of Mombasa Island that were notorious for homosexual activities. When it came to TV, I remember there was a couple of male sex workers who were used as the standard representation of all things gay. This seemed to suit the narrative that all gays were sex workers and effeminate. Any queer reporting had to be sensational, and inevitably leading to an AIDS-related life or death.

Even today, in most cases, whenever there is a ‘gay issue’ that cannot be avoided, the pictures used in the local media will be of cut-off jean shorts or the most dramatic photo that can be found off the wires. It’s all aimed at creating the ‘hawa watu’ (these people) feeling. ‘Gayism’ – a term that doesn’t exist in the English language until our newsrooms birthed it – is rarely portrayed in a way that normalises same-sex relationship or depicts queers’ identities in a positive way.

I cringe when I remember the Standard’s coverage of the UK-based Kenyan gay couple who got married back in 2009. Once the story was picked up by other media houses, they hot-footed to the unsuspecting parent’s home in Murang’a, and sought a reaction that was anything but shocking. No one really cared to ask whether she even knew what homosexuality was.

Do we ask the same of women in heterosexual relationships?

“The responsibility for the news rests with consumers as well as producers, or rather when we accept and repeat statements, we too become producers of the beliefs that shape this world. It behoves us to do so with care.” The majority of the media houses are guilty of regurgitation of the lie that homosexuality is illegal and that Repeal 162 was about gay marriage. This has not stopped the public to from asking the same media houses: ‘if homosexuality is illegal, then why are gay people allowed to walk around freely in the country?’ The gay marriage line has kept being weaved into stories even after the petitioners of the case repeatedly stated the case was not about marriage. Sadly, we have become a public that simply consumes without question. Media audiences in Kenya are severely malnourished! There is a lot more reporting than real journalism from our media houses. One might even say there is a lot more misreporting than reporting taking place. And this extends beyond ‘hawa watu’ issues.

Sadly, many notable stories on LGBTQ Kenyans or allies are falling off the radar of our media houses and being picked up by the foreign press. I must say the Daily Nation is in the habit of covering LGBTQ Kenyan stories through news agencies like AFP. I could be wrong but I have not seen a local interview done with Rafiki film director Wanuri Kahiu on any local platform. The film remains banned in Kenya. Another banned film is Stories Of Our Lives, and producer Jim Chuchu told me that no local media house approached their team for an interview even as the movie was receiving accolades and screenings at film festivals across the globe. There are writers who are getting recognised for the queer literature that is being produced in this country. Junior Nyong’o’s non-binary but very stylish fashion sense has led to questions about his sexuality, instead of being applauded for its uniqueness. They aren’t even letting him shine!  There are visual artists whose work portrays queerness in a way that celebrates us as Kenyans. Work is being created that is showcasing our varied tapestry as a people and narratives being created that are ours, Kenyan. But journalists who have been trained to report on the issues by LGBTQ activists point the finger at their editors and editors in turn are in fear of the media owners. Plus, there is also the fear that covering a good queer story or even humanising a queer might be seen as an assertion of queerness. And what is wrong with that?   Why can’t stories be told without being moralised? Doesn’t the Kenyan reader, listener or viewer deserve the right to make their own judgement?

Chinua Achebe in his essay, Spelling Our Proper Name, says, ‘The telling of the story of black (insert LGBTQ) people in our time, and for a considerable period has been self-appointed responsibility of white (insert patriarchy or moralists) people and they have done it to suit a white (insert patriarchy or moralists again) purpose, naturally. That must change and is indeed beginning to change, but not without resistance or even hostility. So much psychological, political and economic interest is vested in the negative change. The reason is simple. If you are going to enslave or colonize somebody, you are not going to write a glowing report about either him before or after. Rather you will uncover or invent terrible stories about him so that your act of brigandage will become easy for you to live with. ‘

Our media for many years was lauded for being the most vibrant, ‘free’, daring at one time, and most professional in the region.   And many editors, journalists and even photographers paid the price, some with their lives, for choosing to fight with the pen and protect the integrity of the fourth estate.   Fortunately, we no longer see arguments about homosexuality being un-African or a western import, because ‘hawa watu’ are us, Kenyans of the soil. It is increasingly difficult to sustain the ‘western influence’ argument. There are fewer images of stereotypical gay bodies used to depict gay narratives. There is more discourse. However, it needs to be a discourse that honours the strength of the Constitution and the dynamism of our Kenyan human-ness. I hope that soon when I encounter media coverage of LGBTQ issues, it will recognise and acknowledge that there isn’t one single narrative to our ‘gayism’, which actually isn’t even a proper word.

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